Olympics spur Beijing to embrace architectural avant-garde
The people of Beijing are watching expectantly for when the small army of labourers will close the 230m (755ft) high continuous loop of steel and concrete that will look down on their city by the time the Olympics open in August 2008.
There is a palpable buzz about this brightly coloured, Z-shaped construction, designed by the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, which is to be the headquarters of the state broadcaster, CCTV. The Chinese are proud of this building as one of the most remarkable in the world and have called it "the twisted doughnut".
The world's best-known avant-garde architects, including Koolhaas, Norman Foster, Jacques Herzog, Pierre de Meuron and Paul Andreu, are transforming Beijing ahead of next year's games. Zaha Hadid and Albert Speer Jnr have also been involved in projects, either taking part in competitions or helping with planning issues.
It is a building phase unlike anything Beijing has experienced since it was built on cosmological lines in the 14th century by Chinese master builders. They centred the city on an axis around the Forbidden City, with the Temples of Heaven and the Sun as key points, a metropolis laden with symbolic meaning.
While much of the reconstruction of Beijing would have happened anyway, driven by double-digit economic growth in China and the opening up of the country to foreign investment, the Olympics have played a powerful symbolic role in shifting development from the biggest city and financial capital, Shanghai, to the traditionally sleepy political centre of Beijing.
In developed countries, the Olympics can be just another sporting event, albeit a major one. But in China, the Olympics have become a symbol for its re-emergence on the international stage and for its strong development in recent years.
A subway network, supplementing the current handful of metropolitan lines, is being built in the name of the games, and vast expansion of the suburbs has been driven by Olympics-inspired civic ambitions. Other transport initiatives are under way to keep traffic flowing along the city's increasingly sclerotic arteries.
But it is the building boom that has captured the popular imagination, in China and abroad. Of the 31 Olympic venues in Beijing, 12 are new, 11 are older buildings being refurbished and eight are temporary structures. Except for the National Stadium, due to be completed next March, all the venues will be completed by the end of the year, with a total of 300,000 migrant workers making up the construction squad.
The £328m CCTV building, designed by Koolhaas' Office of Metropolitan Architecture and built by the British engineering firm Arup, will radically alter the skyline of the capital. It is a structure that does not look like it should stand up at all. The 80 storeys will house 475,000 square metres of floor space, making it the largest single structure in the world after the Pentagon.
One of the engineers involved, Rory McGowan, explains how best to visualise the startlingly counter-intuitive design. "Imagine four Canary Wharf towers," he says. "Bend two in the middle, use one as the base, another as the top section and place the final two as upright towers leaning at an angle, and you get a basic idea of what CCTV will look like."
The first Olympic building that visitors to Beijing next August will see will be Lord Foster's £1.4bn Terminal 3 building at Beijing Capital International airport. It will be the biggest airport terminal in the world at nearly one million square feet. Skylights dotting the golden roof, designed to let natural light into the terminal, look like the raised scales on a mythical dragon's back.
The centrepiece of the games will be the £280m Olympic stadium built to resemble a bird's nest of interwoven twigs and designed by Herzog and De Meuron. Other highlights include the Water Cube, designed by PTW architects, based on the shape of soap bubbles, and the French architect Paul Andreu's National Grand Theatre, a futuristic, dome-shaped bubble near Tiananmen Square.